Do You Remember How the War Began?

Two soldiers
are preparing to surrender.
Right now they are hunched down in a bunker
to get below the fire fight, and also
because, curled up like this, you can depend for a moment
on the plainness of gravel,
the kindness of the dark
believe that your mother’s arms have blessed you
and though it is late,
the world might still embrace you, personally.
Perhaps the bunker is a find, like a Rolex on the battlefield,
perhaps they have dug it themselves.
A trench like this is on the way to some other place
where they might be less alone and afraid;
so they didn’t plan to be here.

They have planned to surrender though.
One of them has a white cloth tied to a stick
gripped tightly in his right hand.
The white flag belongs to the nation
without a name.
It doesn’t have a written history
or plans of any kind
and it’s not represented at the UN.
He hasn’t raised that blank flag yet.
We know that he’s right handed.
It’s possible that the other hand has in it
something important
like the air-dropped leaflets on how to surrender,
but you don’t usually practice
waving a white flag,
so yes, you would hold it in your dominant hand.
And a white cloth a couple of feet square
is not something that you happen to have in your pockets;
you must have brought it with you,
and a thick, strong stick, too,
you can’t find that just lying around in miles of sand.

Unfortunately, despite the provision of the white cloth
despite the effort of finding a stick,
and of hunching over as far as they could,
in a posture as touching as a child’s,
and despite having no visible wounds,
they are dead.

And the failed magic of cloth, stick, hunching over,
goes on reaching, unfailed, in another dimension.
It shows how intimate he is, my enemy,
how much like me.
Now that I have seen these deaths,
my life will also be theirs-
I’ll have to carry them
so that they can see,
walk, embrace, take on
that weight, that confusion
so necessary for the living.
I can’t help but make for them
a place in my heart.

— John Tarrant
May 2004